Shame on me – Stigma and addiction in treatment

I keep hearing that back in the old days of addiction treatment, shame was the main motivating factor used by rehab counselors. Everyone admits that it proved to be a horrible motivator. It simply didn’t work! With all the advances in research into addiction, that must have changed, right?

I don’t think so. I see shame and stigma every time I hear an addict talk about their drug use. The shame is there in their eyes as they tell the stories of their trouble and the struggles of their recovery. Given the low rates of success in addiction treatment, the shame rests firmly in the inability to quit as well. A relapse is often seen as the ultimately shameful experience for an addict. The stigma of addicts as hopeless is rampant.

Still, we have evidence of genetic predisposition to drug abuse and addiction, we know of environmental factors that make it more likely that people will get hooked. The effect of many drugs on the brain make unsuspecting lab animals as likely to become addicted as any one of us and I’m pretty sure that shame doesn’t play a role in their process.

With all this evidence, why is the stigma of drug addicts still around? Why are they the only ones being blamed for their condition?

The evidence I cited isn’t that different from that known for cancer, yet we scarcely blame cancer patients for their disease. Even in the case of smokers who become ill, their is still sympathy for their suffering. So why are addicts different?

There are good addiction treatment options out there, as long as we don’t give up on the person and simply view their addiction as evidence of their weak character. Given the changes that long term drug use produces in the brain, it’s a miracle anyone recovers at all. We should be grateful for that.

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